The horror story of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, the young Indonesian domestic worker who suffered months of captivity and torture, splashed across Hong Kong’s front pages and sparked public outrage. But although Hong Kongers were shocked by the reports of brutal enslavement and photos of her battered body, residents seemed less perturbed about the systematic wage theft and fraud that pervades the migrant contract labor system. Or the fact that Erwiana had worked for a seemingly normal urban family, and tried to escape before, but no helping hand ever reached her in this hyper-modern metropolis.
For most of Hong Kong’s roughly 320,000 migrant domestic workers, it’s not sadistic torture that they worry about every day, but rather, day-to-day abuses and indignities they suffer that together add up to a massive labor crisis. Within this neoliberal city-state, caught between embryonic post-colonial democracy and authoritarian capitalism, migrant household service workers have developed solid labor organizations, but policymakers still exclude them from residency rights and treat them as indentured servants.
Current laws essentially tether contracted domestic workers to their employers: they cannot live outside the home, and under the “two-week rule,” cannot leave their job without immediately finding new work, or else risk losing their legal status. These strictures, combined with exclusion from standard minimum wage protections for citizens (though domestic workers make up some eight percent of the workforce), put Hong Kong at odds with the International Labour Organization’s Convention on Domestic Workers’ Rights, a 2011 accord guaranteeing basic labor protections and rights, and which has not been adopted by China’s central government.
Though Hong Kong is known for its sophisticated legal system, justice remains largely inaccessible to migrant workers who are cheated by employment agencies. Shady links between agencies and lending companies, along with government’s tendency to side with business, allows the system to bilk workers from all sides.
Although there is a mediation program run by the Philippines consular authorities, according to research published in 2012 by Migrant Workers Mission, the process is rigged to pressure victims to settle for partial rewards, so that “workers receive as settlement a relatively small percentage (45.39%) of the amount that they paid to the agencies in order to work as domestic workers.”